By Susannah Cahalan
Ronald B. Tobias discovered the story of Topsy the circus elephant while working as a producer for the Discovery Channel — and has been haunted by the sad tale since.
Topsy was marquee attraction to Coney Island’s Luna Park at the turn of the century. But her star power turned into notoriety in 1903, when, after being jabbed with a pitchfork, Topsy lashed out at her trainers.
Topsy was sentenced to death by electrocution. As 1,500 people watched, Topsy’s body was hit with a current of over 6,600 volts. She died almost instantly. Thomas Edison filmed the event, titling it “Electrocuting an Elephant” (Google it, but be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart).
Tobias knew he wanted to cover this story, so he pitched it to Discovery. “They told me it was too depressing,” Tobias tells The Post.
“But the story stayed with me for years,” he says. “And the more I looked into the history, the crazier it got and the more I believed there was a bigger story there.”
That bigger story became “Behemoth: The History of Elephants in America,” Tobias’ first book, which follows the role of elephants in American society beginning with the first elephant to land on American soil in 1796.
Tobias found that elephants “always find themselves in the middle of every social controversy that was going on in this country.”
The Political Beast
By the 19th century, elephants had earned their own catchphrase: to “see the elephants” was to have seen something incredible or memorable, something not to be missed.
By the start of the Civil War, newspapers published political cartoons depicting the Union as an elephant, showing the rise of popularity of the enormous animals. In one cartoon titled “Jeff.
Sees the Elephant,” an elephant, dressed in a topcoat and shoes, brandishing the Constitution and a sword represents the Union; while a donkey in dandy clothes donning a dapper monocle, representative of the Confederacy, stares apprehensively on. The political symbols stuck.
Editorial writers from the North began to boast of the South’s fear of “seeing the elephant,” believing that their threats of secession were bluster. Once the Confederates felt the elephant’s “kick, would go home perfectly satisfied.”
Once the war began in earnest, southern solders began to complain of having “seen the elephant” on the battlefield — which had become a very bad omen. More....